WASHINGTON (Reuters) - So you say all you want to do is to take a few minutes to sit down and think without anyone or anything bugging you? Maybe that is true. But you might be in the minority.
A U.S. study published on Thursday showed that most volunteers who were asked to spend no more than 15 minutes alone in a room doing nothing but sitting and thinking found the task onerous.
In fact, some of the volunteers, men in particular, in one of the 11 experiments led by University of Virginia researchers preferred to administer mild electrical shocks to themselves rather than sit and do nothing.
“Many people find it difficult to use their own minds to entertain themselves, at least when asked to do it on the spot,” said University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy Wilson, who led the study appearing in the journal Science. “In this modern age, with all the gadgets we have, people seem to fill up every moment with some external activity.”
Nearly 800 people took part in the study. Some experiments involved only college students. The researchers then broadened the study to include adults who live in the same area.
They went to a church and farmer’s market to recruit people from a variety of backgrounds and ages up to 77. And they got the same results: most participants regardless of age or gender did not like to be idle and alone with their thoughts.
In some experiments, college volunteers were asked to sit alone in a bare laboratory room and spend six to 15 minutes doing nothing but thinking or daydreaming. They were not allowed to have a cellphone, music player, reading material or writing implements and were asked to remain in their seats and stay awake. Most reported they did not enjoy the task and found it hard to concentrate.
Researchers then had adult and college student volunteers do the same thing in their homes, and got the same results. In addition, a third of volunteers cheated by doing things like using a cellphone or listening to music.
The researchers did an experiment to see if the student volunteers would even do an unpleasant task rather than just sit and think. They gave them a mild shock of the intensity of static electricity.
Volunteers were asked whether, if given $5, they would spend some of it to avoid getting shocked again. The ones who said they would be willing to pay to avoid another shock were asked to sit alone and think for 15 minutes but were given the option of giving themselves that same shock by simply pushing a button.
Many did no, especially men: Two-thirds (12 of 18) administered at least one shock. One did it 190 times. A quarter of the women (six of 24) gave themselves at least one shock.
“I think they just wanted to shock themselves out of the boredom,” Wilson said. “Sometimes negative stimulation is preferable to no stimulation.”
Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Grant McCool